White Collar Courage

13 September 2017

First-of-its kind survey reveals many professionals in South Africa do stand up for what is right

The image of the so-called “white collar” criminal is one with which we are all familiar: the corrupt businessperson with fingers crossed behind their back, who knows just where to find the loop holes in the bureaucratic system that make it easy to hide illicit dealings. How much does it happen in reality in South Africa? To what extent are professionals engaging in unethical practices at work? And how comfortable do the “good ones” feel in calling out wrongdoing?

 The inaugural Anti-Intimidation and Ethical Practices Forum (AEPF) Ethics Perceptions Survey takes a first step in answering some of these questions, and the findings are, on some levels, encouraging. The survey, developed by The Ethics Institute at the behest of the AEPF, measured the perceptions that professionals (individuals who belong to work-related professional bodies) hold regarding ethics in South African society and organisations. While some of the findings are very concerning – for example, that 14% of professionals feared for their lives when reporting unethical behaviour – it is worth pausing on the finding that many professionals do in fact demonstrate moral courage when reporting or speaking out against unethical behaviour.

Dr Paul Vorster, Research Specialist at The Ethics Institute, highlights three particular statistics that support this conclusion: “Approximately 78% of the 1 890 professionals sampled indicated that they feel it is their ‘personal duty’ to report unethical behaviour when it is encountered. In other words, four out of every five professionals are guided by their conscience, and thus at the very least have a strong intention to behave with ethical courage. That intention should not be down-played or undervalued: without it, any attempt to cultivate an ethical society is in vain. However, a more sobering finding revealed that only 56% of professionals indicated that they ‘felt comfortable reporting unethical conduct’, painting an unfavourable picture of the workplace environment as one that does not support professionals to blow the whistle on unethical practices. Yet, despite the lack of a supportive environment, 39% of respondents stated that they had reported unethical behaviour in the past – almost four out of ten.”

Dr Vorster maintains that this willingness to take on personal risk – to their careers and even to their safety – is the very definition of ethical courage.

Given that approximately 23% of those who had reported in the past indicated they were ‘intimidated for doing the right thing’ and 22% ‘feared losing their job for doing the right thing’, these individuals’ acts of bravery should be lauded. We cannot know who they are, as the survey was anonymous, but we acknowledge their contribution to furthering ethics in our society.

Finally, the lack of a “supportive environment”, as Dr Vorster described it, could be a reason why approximately a third of respondents would only report unethical behaviour if they remained anonymous. This finding adds to the growing body of evidence supporting the importance of effective safe reporting mechanisms and the need for greater protection of whistle-blowers themselves. Given South Africa’s current paralysis of justice at the highest levels of government and indeed in a number of private-sector companies, there should be deliberate emphasis placed on encouraging professionals to break ranks and demonstrate white collar courage. If organisations and professional bodies alike are successful in doing so, then there is reason to hope that these findings will be more encouraging in the next iteration of this ground-breaking survey.

The detailed findings of the survey were released on Monday 11 September by Dr Claudelle von Eck, chairperson of the AEPF and CEO of the Institute of Internal Auditors SA. The full report is available for download on the AEPF website.


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